Tag Archives: history

The Warmth of Other Suns

I was leaving the South.. To fling myself into the unknown… To see if [I] could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom.” – Richard Wright

During the 20th century, some of the most impactful moments in our history stemmed from World War I, the Great Depression, World War II,  and the Civil Rights Movement. All of us have at least some basic understanding of how these events shaped our lives today, but during that sixty year period another phenomenon happened that has shaped the North and the South, has outlined popular thought and has defined many of our biggest cities. Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is dedicated to studying this phenomenon, a movement now known as the Great Migration.

Through this sixty year period, hundred of thousands of black people fled the South in search of greater freedom, opportunity and stability. They left the south as fugitives, forced to become both emigrant and immigrant in their own country– orange pickers driving down back roads, sharecroppers concealing their plans from farmers, those condemned for activism smuggling themselves in coffins,  others still driving days without sleep. Now in the new world,  a world which Northerners had advertised and led them to, they could walk on the same street as white people, talk to them without honorific titles, and work for a wage, but the North erected its own set of obstacles. The racism of the north disguised itself in higher rent, and lower wages. It made itself evident in the white flight from a neighborhood as soon as a black family moved in. “The hierarchy in the North called for blacks to remain in their station…while immigrants [from other nations] were rewarded for their ability to leave their old world traits”.

The Warmth of Other Suns
not only inspects how migrants made their way from South to North, but how they navigated the injustices they faced once there, how they realized the North was not the oasis they dreamed of. Wilkerson is a masterful story teller, interweaving smaller vignettes into the longer arcs of three primary “characters”– each of whom followed a very different path North. Ida Mae Brandon Gladey, a sharcropper from Mississippi, leaves the South on the verge of the Great Depression. She settles in Chicago where her resilience and affectionate practicality helps her make a home in a swiftly changing city. George Starling Swanson, a passionate, willful orange picker from Flordia, flees the state  to Harlem, New York after the owner of the groves decides to kill him for organizing an ersatz union to fight for workers’ rights. Robert Pershing Foster, an ambitious surgeon hemmed in my limitations of Louisiana, drives to California where he hopes to prove himself to his family, his race and his oppressors.

I’ll admit, some of Wilkerson’s  reminders  of information in previous chapters felt repetitive,  and I do wish she had included some of the images on her website in the book itself, I still learned a great deal from this book, and appreciated the stories it told. In fact, I have not been able to stop thinking about it since I put it down.  For anyone who wishes to understand how  false myths surrounding welfare, inner cities and crime first took root, or who for those just wishing for a good story pick up The Warmth of Other Suns.


Through the Mountains

“You guys okay?” he asked, attempting to tie a miniature Taiwanese flag to a stick he’d picked up from the side of the road.
“Yeah, we’ll be fine.”

“Great, see you in Wushe!”, L walked away with his usual cheerful swagger. “Remember,” he called back at us. “Suns up, thumbs up.” That was his shortened way of telling us that cheerful hitchhikers were more likely to be picked up.

We stood on the side of the street leading from the mountains to Taroko Gorge for about five minutes before a red van pulled over. Clambering out of it and setting about moving various items around in the back, the driver asked us where we planned on going.

“Wushe,” I said.She turned around with a grin on her face, her moon earrings swinging to and fro.  “Well, I’m headed that way, so get in.”

We rode in the car with her for half the day. Conscious of the opportunity at hand, I chose to sit in the front so I could learn more about the person kind enough to pick up three strangers. Unfortunately for her, my sitting in front meant she would be subject to a near endless stream of questions.

Her parents were Presbyterian missionaries in Taiwan when she was born. She’s lived in Taiwan for years, though I can’t remember how many. I know she attended a British school and her father, a preacher, worked with different villages. The family left in ’76 shIMG_6390e told us. “We left when it started gettin’ real bad,” she said, referring to the White Terror or the twenty-some year period Taiwan was under martial law. Unfortunately, she didn’t clarify how they became worse. In fact, most think the situation in Taiwan improved following Chiang Kai-Shek’s death in 1975, though one might be inclined to think it could become worse after watching the beginnings of the suppression of the April 5th, 1976 student protests in China. Perhaps they thought the situation in Taiwan would deteriorate after the formation of the  World United Formosans for Independence, a group interested in the liberation of Taiwan and, who, in 1976 sent a letter bomb to then governor Shieh Tung-min[1].
Regardless, the family didn’t feel safe. Her father had been particularly outspoken in the past and now worried his frankness would lead to trouble.
“Y’know they always told my father he could say more because he was a foreigner and, boy, did he take advantage of that– everything they gave him he gave back twice as hard.” Being a rabble-rouser, as she called him, during martial law is not entirely safe, so the family settled in Bangladesh in 1976– this being only five years after Bangladeshi independence. Somehow they felt that would be safer, I guess. “How was that?” I asked her.

Establishing an independent country is difficult on its own, but in the last five years Bangladesh had also endured two cyclones that wiped out half the population. “In Bangladesh there was hardship everywhere,” she paused to lean over and grab an almond snickers from a small cavity on the dashboard. “The main occupation was chipping bricks for roads. The country wasn’t resource rich in stone, so they had to use bricks instead. They threw bricks through the American embassy– and the Russian one when they learned about Afghanistan– they couldn’t throw any stones– there were no stones.”  At this point her dog Snowy, who I had scooped into my lap, attempted to inspect the food his perch on my knees. Unsuccessful, he settled for me petting him instead. She smiled and I took that as a sign to continue asking questions about her life there. The people in Bangladesh were very poor, she told us. “They looked like the street dogs I saw in other countries”. She spent a few minutes describing starved people “in generally bad shape” to us before cutting herself off.

“Y’know, Bangladesh wasn’t always like that. My elementary teacher told me they were rich before the British came. They used to tile their roofs in gold.” She told us this all the while driving up winding mountain roads. Here and there she would pull off. “You gotta see this,” she’d say, pulling the brake of the old red van. We’d all jump out, Snowy included, and walk  around for a time. While we walked she’d tell us more about IMG_6434Taiwan’s geography and  ecology. “Here’s the IMG_6428hiking  trail five hundred meters up,” she said pointing across the ravine to a nearly hidden path between the green foilage growing on the side of vertigo mountain. “We played with knives up there once,” she said laughing.I asked if it had any safety features. “Sure, sure, but some people still fall off, you know.” I looked horrified and stepped back. Judging by the way Snowy was attempting to scramble his way back to the car, I wasn’t the only one in the party afraid of heights. We returned to the car and drove for a time, and we talked about Japanese control of Taiwan. “When Japan left to make way for the KMT, my teacher told me she had to get dressed up in her best clothes and go sing for them. She said she remembered the Japanese all lined up, looking clean cut in their uniforms. They thanked them for the performance and were so polite. They did the same thing for the KMT when they arrived and it was totally different. They had holes in their uniforms, they were dirty. Couldn’t even bothered to say hello or thank you, just where’s the food and get out of our way basically.”

We drove more, the sky darkened and clouds settled over the roads.IMG_6481“I think that’s where my mother got her PTSD,” C had told me earlier about Bangladesh in passing. For a while I let that statement go and we talked about other things– how she found her dog, Snowy; how strange she felt living in Kentucky in middle school; her studies of high elevation animals in Taiwan. Eventually I asked her about it. “My experience was very different from my mother’s experience,” she began, “and my brothers were very different from mine. My mother has nightmares– wakes up thinking people are watching her. Y’know, we had to go to a therapist after getting back from Bangladesh, the church wanted to make sure we were mentally sound and all that, and she told him about how people looked at her. I mean, people look everywhere. People look in Taiwan, too– not positively, not negatively– they just do. But there, there it was hostile.” Her mother, she seemed to believe, bore the brunt of the hostility. Sure, she startled when balloons popped, but her mother had once been swarmed by angry men when her father left her alone in the van to check on a ferry. “They didn’t like women being out alone,” she’d explained to us.Meanwhile, she disguised herself as a boy. “That was the only way I could have the run of the town,” she told us.

By the time we’d reached the apex of the mountain we’d talked about education, history and family. She’d shared favorite memories and I’d shared some of mine. Not long after we’d started our descent she pulled over again– we’d done so twice before to walk across suspension bridges and look for the stars, but she seemed particularly excited this time. She’d hoped to see the milky way at some point in the drive and occasionally, after several loud exclamations and some laughing, she’d pull over and tell us to get out. She’d sidle out as fast as she could, untangling Snowy’s leash and bringing him along with us. This time the car, perhaps indignant with the frequent stops, refused to brake. One of my companions pointed it out uncertainly, causing C to glance at it then decisively pull the car into reverse before adopting a carefree smile, laughing and walking to the side of the road. “That oughta stop it,” she’d said to my companion, who was doing his best to look reassured.

Now I know memory has a way of fooling you, and I’m not sure if it was the company, or the experience, or the knowing that I had pushed myself beyond my boundaries, but I remember that sky containing most brilliant collection of stars I’ve ever seen. On the highest peak in Taiwan, above the trees we stared greedily at the planets, and constellations that nested themselves in innumerable stars and breathing in the cold, crisp air, I suddenly felt completely reinvigorated.

Urban myths, swearing and some revolutionary graffiti

Swearing: A desired part of language for any teen, person who stubbed their toe or, as it turns out, a study abroad student. For some reason, something about learning another language in another country brings out students’ need to explore. Not to mention swear words are among the top five requested parts of language non-speakers or learners ask you to tell them*. Two summers ago, I traveled with several Arabic learners to perfect our language skills and discover more about Egyptian contemporary culture. Over the course of a couple weeks we became fast friends with a group of self-proclaimed rebels.

One night they invited us out into Cairo with them to take part in the social ritual of hashish (hooka) smoking. Giddy and happy to be out in the night, when the air didn’t stick to us like the dusty suffocating heat of the day, we walked down the winding streets of Zamalek with our new found friends.  Walking through the clamor of downtown Cairo, our  friends eventually lead us to a Shai and Hashish business situated in a small square.  We walked down the narrow path, past several segmented outdoor seating areas before stopping at one hidden, behind crowds of people, in the back.  Awkwardly stepping over the dirty red-velvet, chained barriers we found a motley variety of seats. There we quickly sat down and joined the crowds of Egyptians in casual chatter, chess and, of course, tea drinking and smoking.

Perhaps it was the lateness of the night, but we had eventually grown comfortable enough to request the inevitable: teach us some swear words. Our new friends laughed and promptly denied us, but over the course of a few hours we convinced them to teach us at least a few. Some leaned back and said them with a relish that suggested they had only withheld earlier to tease us. There was one word, however, the girl next to me insisted, through a fit of embarrassed giggles, she couldn’t tell us.

When she did she offered a paper thin explanation, her mouth hidden by her hands, her speech riddled with laughter. She only murmured very quietly: “Sometimes, when I am very shocked I say “a7a” (pronounced “Ahi” or “Aha”) but don’t EVER say that. Never ever.”

According to Urban Dictionary, “a7a” is translated very roughly to “f*ck you”, but that wasn’t particularly what she found most embarrassing. As I discovered later from my rather conservative Arabic teacher, who claimed she certainly had no idea what the meaning was, “a7a” also had another taboo part to it. Apparently, the word was said to imitate a woman’s orgasm.

Boy to the left stands up to a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The text reads at the top”I am the brotherhood” and then “Fuck you, I am the revolution”. Picture taken at Tahrir Square

Knowing my friends were either unwilling to seem salacious while discussing the origins of the word, or uninterested in talking about its usage, I decided to do a little research on my own. While walking through the alleyways of Tahrir Square, I found the above piece of graffiti. “A7a”, a defiant boy exclaims, “I am the revolution.” Here this doesn’t seem like just a swear word; it doesn’t seem taboo or demeaning. If anything, the word is meant to inspire, to galvanize. In fact the word a7a appears to have a history of rebelliousness. In 1967, after then President Nasser suffered a humiliating electoral defeat and refused to step down, crowds of Egyptians responded with this word. “Aha, Aha, la tatanaha!” (Don’t abdicate), they chanted. In  the 2008 film H-Dabbour, Ahmed Mekky  was able to sneak the word past Mubarak’s film censors by spelling it in English**. In 2013, photographer Bashir Wagih opened a exhibit on the word A7a meant to examine the history and meaning of the word. In an interview Wagih said A7a was originally a word to show your right to object. Even today, he said, though Arab linguistics professors say the word has no specific meaning, Wagih found many stories suggesting the word was meant to show people’s right to object, especially in cases where rulers took away rights.

During the interview, Wagih highlighted one origin story where people took to the street after a King declared no one could object to a royal decree. According to Wagih, they said only one thing “Ana 7aq Al-athr”.  I have the right to object. This chant, he says, was soon shortened to A7a, taking the first letter of each word***.

More research needed…
(In which Leah asks some questions)

Interestingly, the word in the painting above is also spelled in English, though I can’t be sure why. Even so,  it’s revolutionary history not withstanding, it seems the most taboo part to, even my most liberal friends, was the myth of its origins. This myth, for me at least, brings about questions on how the culture treats topics involving sexuality. Later, when I asked a male friend about the origins of the word he denied it had anything to do with the word; yet, the myth persists. It seems interesting that everyone knows that the word is meant to imitate the sound of a woman’s orgasm but many seem unwilling to talk about it or mention it. Is that unwillingness an indication of a larger societal issue? What is the place of sex and sexuality in Egyptian culture? Does something as small as an urban myth about a swear word matter? How does  the myth relate to how Egyptians view issues like sexuality, gender,  and sexual harassment?

*No research involved in making this statement.
** If you’d like to know more about the history of the word A7a, I’d recommend reading this article.
*** See the full interview here.

SOMEWHAT UNRELATED FACT TIME: The first King of a united Egypt was named King Aha. Read more about him here.

To those from Egypt and those who speak Arabic: Think I’ve got it wrong? I’d love a correction! I’m always open to learning more.